First Drive: Sentra SE-R Spec V

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Nissan determined that Miami would serve as the East Coast launching ground for the next addition to its SE-R legacy. Why Miami? We don't know either, but ignoring the hard bodies, mojitos and other stereotypes of this great proboscis into the Atlantic, the question to be answered is this: does the new Sentra SE-R live up to its predecessors or is it simply an econobox with a red seatbelt? We were invited to the Homestead Speedway to find out.

This hotted up Sentra enters the market in the middle of a sport compact renaissance. Spearheaded by the Civic Si, elaborated on by the MK5 GTI and now, by many accounts, dominated by the Mazdaspeed3, the SE-R has its work cut out for it. Whether or not its combatants can be categorized as traditional "sport compacts" is debate for another day, but with performance figures within tenths of a second of each other, the competition in this particular segment has already been set to boil.

To begin with, the Sentra SE-R comes in two flavors: standard and Spec V. The former comes equipped with a 2.5-liter QR25DE producing 177 HP at 6,000 RPM and 172 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,800 RPM. Power is sent down to the front wheels via Nissan's Xtronic CVT, complete with a set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, allowing would-be racers to channel their inner Alonso. Nissan likes to tout the fact that the nearest competitor in the segment with a paddle-shift transmission is the GTI, at a $4k premium. However, comparing VW/ Audi's delectable DSG to a CVT with artificial ratios is a like saying that Rosie O'Donnell is as hot as Pamela Anderson, just because they share the same cup size.

Mechanical faux pas aside, Nissan understands that two groups exist within its target demographic, and the standard SE-R was produced to appeal to those looking for an increase in performance without sacrificing the smooth ride to which their delicate bottoms have grown accustomed. As such, the suspension on the base SE-R is made up of slightly stiffer springs that keep the stock ride height, however, variable-flow dampers, a technology pilfered from Infiniti, is employed to soak up the bumps in every day driving and firm up when the going gets twisty.

Our time behind the wheel of both vehicles was minimal, as a lack of small helmets limited our hot laps, but the overall impression of the standard SE-R was favorable, though not awe-inspiring. Depressing the Manual button to the left of the shift knob engages the paddle shifters, although we would prefer a quick tap on either paddle to employ the system automatically. "Downshifting" was quick and intuitive, proving useful on a couple of the tighter bends, while up shifting with the paddles was useless as the CVT would quickly swap up as soon as it reached the engine's 6,200 RPM redline. Quite the killjoy, that CVT.

As for handling, the standard SE-R showed its commuter roots when taken at anything beyond 8/10ths, with enough lean to be noticeable, and at times, disconcerting. It certainly "felt" sporty, but this particular version wouldn't be our first choice when heading out for a track day or a late night assault on our local mountain road. However, Nissan knows that some are willing to sacrifice everyday ease for higher levels of performance... enter the Spec V.

Sporting a high output version of the same motor, the Spec V's mill gets a bump in compression from 9.6:1 to 10.5:1 and brings power levels up accordingly. 200 HP is available at 6,600 RPM, max torque (180 lb.-ft. of the stuff) comes in at 5,200 RPM and redline climbs to 7k. The intake manifold has been modified, along with the connecting rods, piston crown, valve springs, intake and exhaust cams. The result is a sprint to 60 in 6.7 seconds and a quarter mile time likely on the low side of 15 seconds.

All those changes are instantly noticeable when the road gets straight and you're in second gear. Where the standard SE-R felt like it needed a bit more provocation to get going, the Spec V brings the horizon to you quicker and with less effort. There's a considerable amount of twist available no matter where you are in the rev range, but we'll have to wait until we get the Spec V on the road to see how functional it is in real-world driving.

That 200 HP finds the ground through a perfectly placed, yet difficult to stir, six-speed manual and, when equipped with the 225/45WR17 Continental SportContact2 summer rubber, a limited-slip differential. While the brakes on both cars have been upgraded from the standard models, the Spec V gets 12.6-inch front discs, (up from 11.7-inch on the base model) with the SE-R logo emblazoned into the caliper, and 11.5-inch rotors in the rear. Naturally, ABS is standard on both vehicles.

On the stiff side of things, opting up for the Spec V gives you springs that drop the vehicle 10mm, while the variable-flow dampers feature an internal rebound spring (originally employed on the R34 Skyline GT-R) that limits body roll when braking and cornering. The front stabilizer bar swells to 25mm and a V-brace, mounted in the trunk, keeps sideways flex to a minimum.

All this additional engineering thrown at Nissan's new "C" platform makes for an entertaining track toy. The addition of the LSD allows prodigious use of the throttle earlier, with only a hint of understeer. Coming down the front straight of Homestead at over 100 MPH was be the best testing ground for the upgraded stoppers and they proved up to the task. A gentle bend to the left, followed by some judicious application of the middle pedal, became a bit of a hair-raising experience as the back end unloaded, but any hint of oversteer was quickly quelled as the rear obediently followed the front.

As impressed as we were with the handling dynamics and the power delivery, the one killer app Nissan has going for it with the SE-R is its price point. The base model with CVT comes in at $19,400, while the Spec V variant gets an additional $500 tacked onto the sticker. Opting for the top-of-the-line model (the one to get) and equipping it with the LSD, audio package (Rockford Fosgate 6-disc changer, MP3/WMA playback) and the sunroof, the price comes in at $22,415. In the end, it's a series of compromises; if you want to stay in the naturally aspirated realm, you get more torque from the Spec V than the Si, but at a 300-pound premium; go the turbocharged route with the GTI and MS3 and you're quickly banging on the $25k ceiling. And we haven't even gotten into the subjective world of styling.

We left the track wanting more, which is certainly a good sign, but we'll have to reserve final judgment until we get one in the Autoblog Garage. Until then, know that another capable compact is pulling at your purse strings and certainly deserves a test drive.

Nissan provided the vehicles and location for testing. Autoblog does not accept travel or lodging from automakers when attending media events.

All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc/ Weblogs, Inc.

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